Looking forward to the annual budget? Here’s our wishlist for Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman!
Call them chaotic, disorganized, hysterical, confused, or even violent – I have nothing but respect and empathy for the brave women and men who have gathered in our capital to protest government apathy toward women’s safety. I have been waiting for this day to dawn for a very long time: since the day I was followed home by a group of men as an 11-year-old.
Sexual harassment, whether verbal or physical, is designed to do one thing very well: strip the victim of power. Not a single hand was laid on me that long ago summer day but as long as I live, I will remember my feelings of rage, powerlessness and fear. Over the years I have learned to fight back, to assert my personhood in the face of those who would reduce me to nothing more than an “item” but in doing so, I have learned other things too.
I learned that few people will heed your cries if you ask for help; they would rather “stay out of it”. I learned that it is always the woman’s fault for the way she dressed, the time of day she was out or the transport she chose. I learned that society’s first solution for harassment, molestation, and assault is not to punish the perpetrator but to curb the movements of the victim.
I learned that I was neither the first generation in my family to experience this kind of behavior, nor will I be the last. Unless we do something. Culturally, politically, legally. Men and women together.
This weekend was an important first step. It demonstrated that the citizens of this country, especially those (and I say this as someone who grew up in Delhi and love it dearly) that reside in its most misogynistic metropolitan area, are no longer willing to maintain the status quo. No longer is it okay for parents to dismiss complaints as “boys will be boys” and “nice girls don’t go out after dark”, or for a constable to talk down a woman trying to register a complaint because “it might spoil a boy’s life needlessly” and “think of your reputation.” A number of parents in Delhi, at least, seem to have decided they value their daughters’ lives more highly than any possible infamy that ensues from being targeted by sexual predators.
But remember: this is only the first step. Now we have accepted out loud, men and women, parents and children, citizens and government, that we have a problem in this country viz. the law is dismissive and ineffectual when it comes to crimes against women, and they are aided and abetted by public apathy. What next?
Distressingly, the focus seems to be on vengeance. The perpetrators in this case have become a symbol against which we can unleash years of pent up rage. Almost every TV channel devoted most of its coverage to sometimes barely coherent students who called for castration and death to rapists. As a woman who’s been on the receiving end of harassment for years, I have spent hours fantasizing about the bloody and excruciating death I would like to mete out to my attackers; as such I understand where these people are coming from with their banners that call for the death penalty.
But the problem, as I see it, is not the law. It’s the implementation of it. Rape is already punishable by sentences that stretch from 7 years to life in prison. And if you’ve ever even been near a prison, you will know that that is not letting them off lightly. Especially in India. Most of the people calling for the death penalty are outraged at the thought that these people will continue to have a life once they emerge from jail, while their victims will have to live with the memories for the rest of their life. These people are misguided. Jail is not something you shrug off like a blanket and start life afresh. They will carry it with them for the rest of their lives, too. I’m not equating a prison sentence with surviving rape, but I’m saying that incarceration is a severe punishment.
There is a reason why the Law wears a blindfold and death is meted out only in the rarest of rare instances. The Law is not guided by thoughts of vengeance, but justice. Thus we have gradients of punishment for different crimes, and they can seem arbitrary but they are not. Becoming a nation that regularly puts people to death, in public or otherwise, might satisfy some primal urge within us but it will not make India a better or safer country. Rapists don’t select their victims based on an algorithm. If that was how the mind of a criminal worked, we would have the death penalty for every crime and eradicate crime itself. The men in that bus were not debating whether they were going to jail for seven years or a lifetime or if they would be eligible for the noose if they crossed Line X. They were not thinking of anything but taking what they wanted.
No, the law is not the problem. Its implementation is.
We need a Parliament that is serious about reforming the Penal Code. As it stands it is a hotchpotch of loopholes and exceptions as laws from the 19th century nudge for space with 20th century amendments. The entire thing needs to be simplified and brought into the 21st century, an onerous job that no government has been willing to tackle in a serious manner.
We need a police force that can complete its investigations without political interference. And it needs access to better equipment and training to help it serve the citizenry. Imagine a world in which a well-equipped, well-paid, well-regulated yet independent police force fought crime instead of citizens exercising their rights. Imagine them focused on crime rather than politicking and endlessly mired in corruption.
We need courts that are properly funded and staffed, so they can clear cases in a timely and efficient manner. It is matter of great shame that we have Fast Track Courts – yet another caste system for those who are already burdened with other woes. Who amongst us deserves to be slow-tracked? Walk into any court of the land and I guarantee you will be appalled by the way things are run. From the way they store documents to the bribes you have to pay (often so they will do their job) to the truly incredible backlog, the whole system is a disgrace.
It is also worth remembering that Delhi is not the only place in India where such crimes are committed. This one girl’s brutal assault has temporarily shocked us all out of our customary inertia, but spare a thought for her sisters who live forgotten in other parts of the country. They exist in tiny boxes on the edge of newspapers, ignored or skimmed over on a daily basis. Nobody marches for them. As it stands, perhaps Delhi police might have to clean up its act (or least pretend to for a while) but that will not address the safety issues of women in Bengaluru or Chennai or Guwahati or Srinagar or Chandigarh or a million tiny villages that are barely aware that they are a part of India.
This week or the next, India will once again be lulled into its customary complacency by the latest Bollywood release or the next cricket match. And this remarkable weekend will become just another event that happened that one time. Which is my point – causes célèbres burn bright but fast; lasting change is an unglamorous amalgamation of determination and hard work.
“We want justice!” chanted the crowds in Delhi. But what this country really needs is a complete renovation. Justice will come in its wake.
Editor’s Note: Image from recent protests in Delhi, source unknown
Amrita Rajan is a writer. She's interested in what you have to say.
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